On Becoming A Reader

When I was in high school, it was the influence of three people that started me on the road to becoming a reader. Two were in the home and the third one was in the school.
My grandfather never finished elementary school and where he learned to read so well is and will remain a mystery to me. In my home there were not many books – what I can recall is a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a few copies of Reader’s Digest novel sets. As I was growing up I probably believed that novels were short and compact and four or five of them fit into one of the Reader’s Digest books. My grandfather used to read the set of encyclopedias. It was common to find him sitting on the rocking chair in the kitchen going through one of the 24 books of the encyclopedia. I recall him telling me that he started at “A” and just worked his way through to “Z”. I was duly impressed and thought he must have been a most educated man. I copied him by reading as much of that encyclopedia as I could, though I admit that I struggled at times and never completed the set!
The second person in my home experience was my cousin Bobby. Bobby was sort of an outcast in the family for reasons that I did not understand until I got much older. Bobby was ‘different’ according to my family and neighbors – I would learn later that that difference was that he was gay. That word was not part of the vocabulary back then. “Different’ served as the signifier for Bobby. He did, however, notice that I was smitten by reading and one day he provided me with a handwritten list of books that he thought I should read – I lost that list many years ago and can only recall four books that were on it – ‘Auntie Mame’, ‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Brave New World’ . I, of course had never heard of any of these books but I did find them and read them. My first copy of ‘Catcher’ I remember buying in a Kmart in Reading, Pa. We were going on a family vacation to Williamsburg, Virginia – the only time I remember taking a family vacation that did not include visiting relatives in Reading or Stroudsburg. I took that book with me on that trip, reading it whenever I could in motel rooms in Virginia. At the time it was just a story to read – years later I learned more about the book and J.D. Salinger. It was then that I read through just about everything he wrote and later, as a teacher of literacy, I used the book in my own classes.
The third person was from school – my high school English teacher – Mrs. Marge Maurer. I was struck by the enjoyment and importance she placed on reading. It was through her that I was introduced to some of the time honored authors – Melville, Hemingway, Golding, Steinbeck, and Shakespeare. Multiculturalism was not a concept that had reached Tremont at that time and it would be some time before my reading list became varied with writers that I would meet later. I don’t recall reading novels in my English classes but I suspect we must have. What I do recall is having a thick reader that contained poetry, short stories and abridged versions of some of Dickens’ novels. Those readers were always a struggle for me and have not imprinted themselves on my memory.

4 thoughts on “On Becoming A Reader

  1. This is a great reminder that literacy and learning to read does not follow a prescribed trajectory as our highly structured curricula might suggest. The fact that reading came to you as a high schooler should alert those who would determine policy and sanctions that teaching and learning is a very human experience defined partly by the unique make up of the individual.

    I was touched that your grandfather (I suspect an older adult), your cousin Bobby (a gay man), and Mrs. Maurer (a female teacher), each occupying traditionally marginalized groups in society, were the key to your life as a reader.

    • Robert,
      Your reading of my post has added greatly to my thinking on this matter. Many people contribute to our literacy, including our teachers. That I came into being a reader only in high school does indeed speak to educational policy and practice. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to think about this aspect of my writing.

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